On a pleasantly warm early April afternoon at Juventus’ training complex on the outskirts of Turin, Gianluigi Buffon’s mood does not convey the joys of spring.
He needs a break, his back is killing him, but Juve are still in the Champions League and the European Championships are just two months away, so any thoughts of taking it easy have to be banished for the greater cause.
Aside from that sore back, how are you feeling?
Fantastic. It’s been a really great season, especially for me and my team-mates at Juventus. We’re having a great campaign; we’re all very proud about the way we’ve bounced back. To tell you the truth, we had a few doubts about what we could achieve, but the great strength of Juve is that we never give up.
We’re all giving 120 percent and if Inter were not doing such extraordinary things, we would be one of the title favourites. So maybe we’re getting back to being a great side quicker than we expected. And of course with Italy, I managed to reach the finals of the European Championships after a tough qualifying campaign.
You surprised everyone by staying with Juventus when they were relegated to Serie B. Is it true that you would have signed for Milan if Juve had remained
in Serie A?
Yes, I probably would have joined Milan, for a new challenge more than anything, but going down to B was challenge enough and I felt that I did the correct thing. Probably it wasn’t the normal thing to do but in the end it was a simple choice for me. If Juve had to go down to B then I had to go with them. I didn’t really need to think about it. Juve helped me become a world champion and therefore I owed them a huge debt.
Ibrahimovic, Vieira, Cannavaro, Emerson: they all jumped ship. You were the best keeper in the world yet you played in Serie B. What made you different?
Maybe I had a different upbringing from other players, maybe a different education, especially from my parents in terms of the way I should behave when it came to my dealings with others. I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life but I think that’s normal for someone who wants to grow and develop. You will have to overcome plenty of obstacles and it is normal that you should stumble sometimes.
However, if you behave in a certain way at the end, say over 10 or 20 years, you end up doing the right things. As for the rest of the things that go on around football, I feel as if I am a normal sort of person, especially if I let in a goal that in reality I should have saved. Maybe I’m the only footballer who isn’t interested in cars. My Lancia Y gets me around.
You come from a very sporty family. Your mum was a discus thrower, your dad a weightlifter, your two sisters played volleyball and basketball. Were you ever tempted by other sports as a kid?
Well, football was my main sport. I took part in athletics and I also played a bit of volleyball and basketball but really it was always football.
Who were your football heroes when you were growing up?
I liked Lothar Matthaus as a player, Tomas Skuhravy [once of Czechoslovakia and Genoa] in attack and Thomas Nkono as a goalkeeper. I remember the Cameroon side from World Cup ’90 and I liked the way Nkono seemed to approach playing in an open way so he became my hero. I always followed the underdog. In Italy, I supported Genoa and then Pescara when everyone else was following Maradona and Napoli.
It’s interesting that Nkono caught your attention because at that time you weren’t even a goalkeeper, were you?
Yes, that’s true. I was a striker until I was 13, then one day I was asked to go in goal and fortunately it worked out well. Four years later I was playing in Serie A. It was just one of those things but I believe that you end up choosing your own destiny. So one day I became a goalkeeper and that was that, th�at’s the way it was written to be.
Maybe I just had a talent for it that was waiting to come out. Becoming a goalkeeper at 13 was one of two key moments in my career: the other was making my debut against Milan. As a youngster I wanted to play for a prestigious club instead of which I went to Parma. Nine out of 10 youngsters would have gone on to a big club, but it ended up being to my benefit. I never had any formal training and in a way that may have helped me.
In what way did it help you?
Well, it may have moulded my approach to goalkeeping. I had no time to think things through so I acted on instinct, on what seemed like the best thing to do in that particular moment. It just came to me so there was no process, it was reactions if you like.
And now you’re the best goalkeeper in the world, something you demonstrated at the world cup in 2006. How did it feel to lift the trophy?
It was a dream come true, it would be for any player. I still feel very fortunate. It was just a feeling of immense joy especially in making a whole country happy.
What was the most important factor in making Italy world champions?
Our strength as a group. No one could beat us. We all came together and stuck together. We also had Marcello Lippi in charge who was a good motivator and great at bringing the best out of players. He knew how to use his squad to the fullest, how to get the most out of his players and how to use them to the team’s best advantage.
Since then, Roberto Donadoni has taken over. What’s the biggest difference between this Italy side and the World Cup-winning team?
The biggest difference is in terms of the tactics. We play a different way compared to the 2006 side under Lippi but it’s working out well and paying dividends.
Italy are in what everyone is calling the Group of Death with France, Holland and Romania. Could we see a shock?
It’s a very difficult group. On paper, Italy and France are favourites to go through, but in reality it isn’t like that. I don’t think there is one favourite or for that matter a team that is going to be massacred. People will write off Romania but they have a team that has to be watched.
OK, so apart from Italy who are the favourites to win Euro 2008?
In this competition, there are always three or four teams that stand out. I’d watch Italy, France, Germany and Spain. Holland could do something if they get out of our group. But I’m sure everyone is glad that Italy can’t meet France in the final, just as I am.
Will the competition lack something without England?
Definitely. I’m disappointed that England are not there, for the tradition that they bring and the support that follows them to competitions like this.
By July you could be world champion and European champion, and you’re still only 30. How do you see your future?
As I have always done. Age is just a way of defining someone but nothing much will change. It depends how I feel and how fit I remain. As long as I feel good and have the desire then I’ll continue to play at the highest level. You know, if you feel good then you could play until well after 40.
And follow in Dino Zoff’s footsteps…
We’ll see about that. Remember, I started playing much earlier than he did.